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Healthy eating can cost less, study finds

SAM HANANEL
The Associated Press
Modified: May 23, 2012 at 5:14 pm •  Published: May 23, 2012
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photo - This undated handout photo provided by the Agriculture Department shows a plate showing portion sizes of 100 calories worth of strawberries, broccoli, potato chips, bread and M&Ms.  Is it really more expensive to eat healthy? An Agriculture Department study released Wednesday found that most fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods cost less than foods high in fat, sugar and salt. That counters a common perception among some consumers that it's cheaper to eat junk food than a nutritionally balanced meal. (AP Photo/Agriculture Department)
This undated handout photo provided by the Agriculture Department shows a plate showing portion sizes of 100 calories worth of strawberries, broccoli, potato chips, bread and M&Ms. Is it really more expensive to eat healthy? An Agriculture Department study released Wednesday found that most fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods cost less than foods high in fat, sugar and salt. That counters a common perception among some consumers that it's cheaper to eat junk food than a nutritionally balanced meal. (AP Photo/Agriculture Department)

WASHINGTON — Is it really more expensive to eat healthy?

An Agriculture Department study released Wednesday found that most fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods cost less than foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

That counters a common perception among some consumers that it's cheaper to eat junk food than a nutritionally balanced meal.

The government says it all depends on how you measure the price. If you compare the price per calorie — as some previous researchers have done — then higher-calorie pastries and processed snacks might seem like a bargain compared with fruits and vegetables.

But comparing the cost of foods by weight or portion size shows that grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy foods are less expensive than most meats or foods high in saturated fat, added sugars or salt.

That means bananas, carrots, lettuce and pinto beans are all less expensive per portion than French fries, soft drinks, ice cream or ground beef.

"Using price per calorie doesn't tell you how much food you're going to get or how full you are going to feel," said Andrea Carlson, scientist at the USDA's Economic Research Service and an author of the study.

For example, eating a chocolate glazed donut with 240 calories might not satiate you but a banana with 105 calories just might.

In the comparisons, the USDA researchers used national average prices from Nielsen Homescan data, which surveyed a panel of households that recorded all food purchases over a year from retail outlets.

The cost of eating healthy foods has been the subject of growing debate as experts warn Americans about the dangers of obesity. More than a third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the government, and researchers expect that number to grow to 42 percent by 2030.

"Cheap food that provides few nutrients may actually be 'expensive' for the consumer from a nutritional economy perspective, whereas food with a higher retail price that provides large amounts of nutrients may actually be quite cheap," the study said.

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